Friday, 29 January 2010

Searching for meaning in worship

"Worship" is one of those words that has entirely different meanings, depending on your churchmanship, and age, and the stage of your journey of faith.  This was brought home to me very strongly a couple of weeks ago when I attended an apparently thriving church where the order of service referred to the three blocks of congregational singing as "Worship" (three songs), "Song" (one song) and "Worship song" (one song).  It was a traditional evangelical 'song sandwich' of a service with a band of young people, and overhead projection (much like one of the churches I work in).  The implicit theology in the visited church was that everything that wasn't singing wasn't worship.

Incidentally this is the kind of service that I found exciting and enthralling and emotionally sustaining twenty years ago, but which now often leaves me cold and slightly irritated. It's not surprising that many of the congregation were young people.  But I've been puzzling a bit about why the difference in response?  Was I the only person in the Big Tent at Spring Harvest a few years ago trying, really trying, to find to God in the noise and repetition and exhortations to behave in a particular way, but feeling ever more manipulated and alientated?  Maybe the 'herd instinct' expresses itself differently at various st/ages of our lives?

Today I found a description of worship that put into words a lot of what I have been experiencing,
"In most of the Western world there are basically two types of worship you’re likely to find in churches. Liturgical worship that follows a set pattern or structure in a prayer book led by professional clergy is the basic diet of mainline denominations.
And blocks of singing led by a keyboard player, guitarist or worship band are the staple diet of worship in charismatic/evangelical/pentecostal churches.
On the one hand, the liturgy has depth but repeated week in week out can become very dry and formulaic, seems to reflect a bygone era, and makes very little connection with contemporary life.
But on the other hand, worship led by a band whilst it can be exciting isn’t without its problems – a cult of the worship leader as a sort of guru has emerged, worship easily gets trapped into performance mode, and the range of theology in the songs is often pretty thin. It seems to suit an adolescent stage of faith which is brilliant if that’s where you are at.
But when you have been a Christian for a few years, your faith is equally as real but you probably have a different set of questions and struggles. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, raising kids is a challenge, God is distant, or life is hard this kind of worship can seem irrelevant and disconnected from everyday life. Themes that are commonplace in the hymnology of the psalms – anger, lament, disorientation, exile – just don’t seem to fit with this modern worship culture.

I meet increasing numbers of adults who are struggling with this dilemma."
You can find a lot more at this site, and I don't agree with the 'third way' - even more division?  I'd like to find an inclusive way to encompass the needs of all the worshippers in the church rather than force people into choosing their church based on whether they have a choir or a band.

Oh, and I'd like to be able to keep the vows I made at ordination at the same time - I don't want much do I?



  1. Great post Helen, like you I find the kind of worship that sustained me 20 years ago often leaves me cold now, I can relate to the Spring Harvest experience because I've been there.

    Interestingly a poll amongst unchurched young people revealed that they are looking for depth over froth, and that video projectors and worship bands are really trimmings and may be unwelcome.

    As for hymn prayer sandwiches again they do not point to a holistic approach to worship. My struggle is always to point to the fact that worship does not end on Sunday, that it must be about who we are in relation to God every momnent of everyday...

    You know me well enough to know that I like visual aids and tactile expressions of worship, but when they become the focus and the end then they loose meaning ( as they do if they are not well thought through).

    I think that people are often looking for a place where questions are allowed ( even in worship), and there is room for doubt and difficulties...

    How? that is a huge question....

  2. Thanks for those ideas Sally - 'How' is the big question indeed. My instinctive response to the survey (do you have a reference for me?) is that I'm not surprised - integrity isn't always age-related.
    I also think we need to allow for the 'mystery' of faith to sink into our hearts and to have the confidence to know when to leave the questions open. The parts of my church family (all of it, not just the Church of England) that I find hardest to relate to are those people who are so sure they and only they know the answer that dialogue becomes impossible. Having said that, I am probably not the best advert for my own convictions... (work in progress and all that).
    Now.. how much of my theology of inclusion (I love organ music and hymns and choral music and bands with worship songs - and tealights[!] and water and cloth and stones and incense and touch... but they must all have depth and draw us into closer relationship with God) is simply a reflection of my nature?

  3. Today, with our Candlemas service, I think we managed to combine the depth of liturgy with meaningful and relavnt songs, including a hymn that I like very much, so that was a treat. The feedback was positive, and make the amount of work put into a single service feel worthwhile on a very human level. Just occasionally... I think we get it right.

  4. Just occasionally I suspect we do, and I think you are right it needs to be substance and depth over content. Worship is such a strange thing isn't it.

    The survey was comissioned by the Group for Evangelisation as a part of their Church in a spiritual age project.

  5. Helen, since the invention of the "Service of the Word" in CW it's now really difficult to break your ordination vows. As long as you keep to the (very broad) guidelines, and there's a Mass going on somewhere in the benefice, you're fine.
    Service of the Word is actually a real challenge to the imagination. You could end up with something that was basically a (with apologies) straightforward Methodists hymn sandwich with added bits - or you can end up with a multimedia fantasia.
    But in the end what's needed is the context and language that brings people to God. Entertainment's OK, creativity's nice - but letting people speak to God in the (musical, verbal, visual and tactice) language they understand - that's what matters.

  6. Thanks Sally and G. I like SofW for its flexibility and the creative opportunities it includes. However... there are many people who prefer churches where the 'music only' style of worship is normative, and/or to whom the word 'shall' is regarded as external control and raises suspicions of papism (to exaggerate to make the point).